Category Archives: Blog Post

Chapter Entry: Deborah Willis, “Exposure”

Deborah Willis’ essay “Exposure” focuses on the years 1942-1968, a period of extraordinary change in American society. As Willis explains, it was also a period of exceptional growth in black image-making, and a time of distinction for American news photographers. Willis explains her essay as an exploration of the “social conditions governing the act of being photographed and decoding of the photographs.” [1] I interpret “Exposure” as achieving two ends: First, Willis describes the importance of photographs in African American communities during this period, and suggests that the creation and dissemination of photographs fostered individual identities and forged community bonds. Second, she explores the role of photography in the civil rights movement, suggesting that the images – especially images made by news photographers – were crucial to the formation of a true political collective. These twin investigations provide a brief but comprehensive look at the role of photography and photographers in the civil rights movement.

Willis suggests that “what we imagine about this period is meditated through the insights of the photographers” who committed moments from key events to film. [2] These events were local and national, personal and political, individual and collective. The photographs, Willis states, represented the “conscience of this country.” [3] The result was a “collective visual memory” that persists today. [4] “Exposure” explores the development of this memory; to enhance this exploration, Willis and the editors, Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, use plays of omission and inclusion to trigger the reader’s memory and reinforce the essay’s arguments.

In African-American communities, photographers celebrated progress and documented historic changes. Family photographs were construed as both progressive and historical: the publication of baby photos in the NAACP’s Crisis was both a statement of “family” pride, with the family defined as all black Americans, and a historical record of, and argument for, the continuous improvement of the social, political and economic situation of African-Americans. Willis argues that this created a “visual taxonomy” – a vocabulary and syntax that could be used to read (and, perhaps, author) images of black Americans. [5] Baby pictures, which were published frequently in Crisis, did not merely elicits coos and grins; these babies were, in W.E. Dubois’ words, evidence of “a large and larger class of well-nourished, healthy, beautiful children among the colored people.” [6] These images were meant to be enjoyed, but they were also meant to instruct viewers – such is the nature of evidence.

The turning point in Willis’ essay – the shift from a focus on photography’s role in building individual identities and community norms to a broader exploration of photography’s role as a catalyst for social change – is a discussion of Ernest Withers’ photographs of Emmett Till. These photos do not accompany the essay. This omission is a brilliant twist: by avoiding reproductions of Withers’ photographs, Willis and the editors ask us to recall the images. The prompt is productive for many readers, who will be able to summon the horrifying photographs immediately, underscoring Willis’ point: these images are burned into our individual minds and imprinted on the American psyche.

Willis asserts that photographers in this period were witnesses who crafted “a visual language” to “testify” about “their individual and collective experience.” [7] Photography galvanized young people, motivated cultural change, and helped define the civil rights movement. Images helped messages coalesce, and allowed civil rights leaders to develop a different “visual taxonomy” that described atrocity in stark detail. These photographers were, by and large, white and employed by major news outlets. However, they were also deeply embedded in the civil rights movement, and often saw themselves as activists. A discussion of two images in the chapter will help explain this dual role.

Charles Moore was raised in Alabama, the son of a Baptist preacher. He trained in fashion photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, but was hired as a staff photographer for the The Montgomery Advertiser and The Montgomery Journal after graduation. Moore’s Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 [below] is an icon image of the civil rights movement.

Charles Moore, Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

At the center of the frame, three figures cluster together. They face away from the camera, towards glass doors hung with wooden blinds. A bright vertical line shoots into the frame from the right side, ending its trajectory at the lower spine of the tallest figure. The image is marred by a profusion of white flecks that are most concentrated in the upper right corner. Moore’s photograph records the use of high-pressure water hoses on peaceful demonstrators. The doors they face are shuttered, allowing those inside to turn a “blind” eye to the proceedings. Spray from the water hose, knocks the protestors into the building, but they do not cower; the man on the far right, who is taking the brunt of the water’s force in his back, stands strong, bracing himself against the building. The white flecks are spray from the jets, suffusing the atmosphere with water and drenching the group with residual moisture. Critics have suggested that the Moore’s decision to leave the hose operator unseen “implicate[d] the whole nation.” [8] Legislators and historians have credited images such as Birmingham Riots with fostering public support for the civil rights movement.

Willis quotes photographer Danny Lyon, using his images and his words as testimony. Lyon, a Brooklyn-born, self-taught proponent of New Journalism, became fully embedded with his subjects, a participant-witness. Lyon explains that he operated with the blessing of the SNCC, and was frequently directed to his images by James Forman, the executive secretary of the organization. [9] Lyon’s quote, printed under his photograph, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962 [below], reminds us that these photographs are not just evidence; they are also arguments. Water fountains were a symbol of the economic, educational and social disadvantages of blacks under Jim Crow laws.

Danny Lyons, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962

Lyon’s image of two water fountains, a large one for “whites” and a tiny one for “colored,” is both a record of a fact and a argument against the social conditions of that fact. Lyons’ matter-of-fact representational style tells us what is so, but its damns its subject: this is wrong on its face.

In the last third of the essay, Willis explores the impact of these images. She credits Moore and Lyon’s photographs with earning the investment of the American people, global attention to the civil rights movement, and critical changes in the legislation and enforcement of equality. Willis’ essay exposes the critical role played by news photographers in the success of the civil rights movement, giving these overlooked activists due attention by explaining the importance of their images. The magic of the essay is rooted in its demonstrative qualities. Willis, Fusco and Wallis do not merely tell us; instead, Willis evocative descriptions, the editors’ omissions and inclusions, and the photographs themselves combine to show us her argument.

I wish that the curators had been able to include some images of “life in the margins” – Willis’ description of images of black prosperity. “Exposure” is punctuated with searing news photographs, but Willis’ captivating introductory discussion focuses on more quotidian images. The richness of her scholarship is due, in part, to this comprehensive approach. A visual juxtaposition of the gentle and the jarring would have greatly enhanced this reader’s experience, extending the demonstrative qualities of the piece to its first third, as well.

Also, I wish that Willis had been able to devote time and space to analysis of the changing role of the photographs discussed. The function of these images has multiplied over the decades. The photographs were originally news items – reportage of important current events of the day. Over the decades, museum curators, art collectors, historians, and observers have added further meaning and purpose to these photographs. Lyons’ image of a water fountain is no longer proof of an existing situation; instead, it is a palimpsest of information, with multiple coterminous purposes and meanings. Today, it may be a record of the past, an art object to be collected, and an artifact to be displayed. I would love to know Willis’ thoughts on the sale of these images to collectors of “fine art” photography. Also, I would love to hear her thoughts on the display of these images as art rather than news. I think her take on the transmutation of these images – their acquisition of multiple identities – would be fascinating.

[1] Deborah Willis, “Exposure,” in in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 275.

[2]Id.

[3] Id., 281.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., 276.

[6] Id., 278.

[7] Id., 275.

[8] Douglas Martin, “Charles Moore, Rights-Era Photographer, Dies at 79” New York Times, March 15, 2010.

[9] Willis, 279.

 

Pinboard #5: Mel Ramos

Left: Mel Ramos, “Life Saver”, 1965. Right: Mel Ramos, “Lifesaver Lil”, 2009

Mel Ramos has drawn ire from feminists and the art-world alike throughout the course of his career.  Ramos was born in California and began studying art under Wayne Thiebaud in 1954.  His career began in the early 1960s with paintings of images from comic books.  In 1963, Ramos participated in a group show at LACMA in which his paintings along with similar works by iconic Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.  However, Ramos is most known for his depiction of female nudes posed as pin-ups who interact in some sexual manner with commercial objects (e.g. Chiquita bananas, Hunt’s ketchup, Payday candy bars, etc.).

The two works featured here are in keeping with Ramos’ general oeuvre.  The image on the left, entitled “Life Saver,” is a 1965 oil on canvas.  The work on the right is entitled “Lifesaver Lil” and is a 2009 drawing.  Although these two works were not directly intended to be exhibited next to each other, contrasting them side by side, begs the question, “what’s changed?”  Both works feature a nude woman who stares seductively out at the viewer.  The sexuality of both women is enhanced not only by their nudity but also by the manner in which they are posed.  In the 1965 version, the woman balances on her tiptoes, grasping the top of life-sized roll of lifesavers around which she wraps her bent right leg.  In “Lifesaver Lil” the woman thrusts her breasts forward between her arms while pushing down on the top of a roll of Lifesavers that obscures her genitals yet abuts her body in a phallic manner.

Although Ramos describes these works as “not too erotic” with a “trace of humor” and in “good taste”, their explicitly erotic nature produces images of undeniably sexualized women.  The question, for me however, is not so much the ways in which these images may or may not continue to perpetuate sexist notions of gender, rather is if and how reception to these images may have changed.  In 2009, New York Times critic Ken Johnson described a friends experience on seeing Ramos’s work now as opposed to in the 1970s.  Whereas in the 70s the works had infuriated her, now they were “benignly amusing.”[1]  Such a shift is reflective of generalized contemporary approach to a myriad of once controversial topics and images.  Notions of sexuality and gender that once seemed to define what it meant to be a woman or a man or  a sexual person now seem quaint and out of touch.  Many would likely see the aforementioned reception to Ramos’s work as a sign of progress.  In a post-post everything world, accepting and ironically appropriating formerly oppressive visualities is a means of demonstrating a contemporary empowerment.  I am skeptical however, as to the degree to which such appropriation is truly empowering, especially in the context of Ramos’s images.  Ramos, as these two works show, continues to work within the same milieu, the same nexus of cultural and personal referents and to the same end.  If all it takes is time for us to interpret his work differently is that really moving forward?  Of course, time and cultural shifts, undoubtedly make things that were once offensive or troublesome much more accepted.  While interpreting the same image differently over the course of time is an integral part of art history, in the context of the nude female figure in art, it is not enough to simply say that times have changed.  Although not all of Ramos’s work is inherently sexist, nor do I think it should be read as such, an inquiry into the female nude must go beyond the mere revision that Mr. Ramos’s work lends itself to; if the answer to “what’s changed?” is nothing, then an interpretation cannot reveal changes that have not occurred.  In short, Ramos’s images are, to me, more problematic in a contemporary setting than they were in the 1970s.

Additional Sources:

http://www.srcart.com/art_ramos_bio.html

http://palmspringsfineartfair.com/mel-ramos-wins-lifetime-achievement-award/

http://www.melramos.com/


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/arts/design/25john.html

Ebony and Ivory

Ebony and Ivory [J.R. Carter], c. 1987

The photograph, titled Ebony and Ivoery, is of a black man holding a small Greek statue figurine.  The man is J.R. Carter, a professional model that Day used in multiple works.  Carter seated in the nude, on a platform covered with an animal print cloth, against a matte black background.  The cloth and the darkness of his body heighten the racialized dynamic of the image.  The placement of Carter’s black body against a black background is abnormal as  the common practice was placing black bodies against white background in order to enhance the contrast.  Instead the body gets lost, sucked in by his black surroundings.  The Greek statue pops animal skin cloth the man Carter sits are the only thing that breaks up the immense and overwhelming blackness of the photo. We see a faint silhouette of his face.  His features are so shadowed though that it fades into the background.  The play of light on Carter’s muscled body against the matte background creates an interesting play of textures that speaks directly to the implied hardness of the material of Greek figurine held in the sitters hand.  The light is so bright against the small statue that it becomes a silhouette in white, softer than the hand that is holding it.

F. Holland Day (1864-1933), the Photographer of this photo was a Boston Born, Photographer.  He began photography as a hobby in 1886 [1].  By 1889 he joined a professional Camera club.  Possibly because of his own background, being the first generation to receive an education and have a strong interest in the arts from his family, Day worked closely with a Children’s Aid society to help poor children with reading and artistic pursuits.  One of the most famous children mentored by Day was Kahlil Gibran.  Day also funded Gibran’s education.  In 1895 Day opened his own Photography studio, the studio where this photo was taken.

Photography was tool Day used to speak to and play with the way the world was imagined.  This photograph does a fantastic job of showing this.  The image, though not a classic painting brings that to mind.  By playing with the classical male figure, but using a black body holding a classical body as imagined, a classical body that is white, the photograph forces a certain dialogue to happen. The role of Black and White, not just in photography, but in our social and historical perceptions of bodies is in question.  The celebration of an the male form the a black male body brings to mind questions about gender and sexuality, questions that swirled around F. Holland Day himself.

When I saw this picture, I was immediately reminded of not just classical nudes, but the images that would come later from Gordon Parks of black children with white dolls.  This photograph is a grown man, with an aesthetically pleasing body, placed with a small white doll. Rather than the doll representing social beauty and desirability though, the doll represents great civilizations and their knowledge, art, and aesthetics.  I would like to take a detour in speaking about this photograph though. I think it is important to speak of this photo through the experience of looking for it online.  When I decided I wanted to write about it, the first thing I did was a google search.

While I did receive some image search results, on page two of the image results surrounded by lots of guns, I was more struck by the first results, other media results that came up, namely the song Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney (this is also the associated wikipedia page) and the SNL spoof of the same song from 1982.  Though the wikipedia page has links to other things known as Ebony and Ivory, this image is not one of them.  The lyrics of the songs are in a strange conversation with the photograph.

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony

[…]

We All Know That People Are The Same Where Ever We Go

There Is Good And Bad In Ev’ryone,

We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give

Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.

Ebony and Ivory, Paul McCartney, 1982

Because photography is such an interesting medium to me, because a photo has so many lives, it becomes so interesting to take the intended and unintended meanings of the photograph in conversation with the digital trail that needs to be followed if we want to find out more about what we are seeing.  Knowing that in 1897 F. Holland Day titled this image he created Ebony and Ivory, and that in 1982 an international musical icon used the same wording, and contrasting imagery, though this time on a (classical) piano, to create a song that spoke towards many of the same social issues is something that I find amazing.  That as we move through the digital world they are now placed together in search results says something about the legacy of racial issue across society, media, and time.

1. Fanning, Patricia J. Through an uncommon lens: The life and photography of F. Holland Day. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Disruption and Consumption: J.P. Ball’s Photographs of William Biggerstaff (Blog Post 2)

J.P. Ball & Son, Portrait of William Biggerstaff seated in a chair with a hand on his face wearing a flower in his lapel; Photograph of the Execution of William Biggerstaff, hanged for the murder of “Dick” Johnson, flanked by Rev. Victor Day and Henry Jurgens, sheriff, 1896; Photograph of William Biggerstaff, former slave, born in Lexington, KY in 1854, 1896.

 

This work is a series of three photographs taken by James Presley Ball of William Biggerstaff in the year in 1896.  Biggerstaff was a former slave from Lexington, Kentucky who had moved out West to Montana after gaining his freedom.  In 1895, Biggerstaff was accused of murdering the African American prizefighter Dick Johnson in a quarrel over a white woman.[1]  Although Biggerstaff claimed the killing was done in self-defense he was nonetheless found guilty and hung.  In this series of images, Biggerstaff is shown in life, just after his execution and in death.

The first image is a posed portrait of Biggerstaff.  His head rests on his right hand and he gazes solemnly in that direction.  He is dressed formally wearing a suit with a flower pinned to the lapel.  The second image is gruesome and depicts Biggerstaff’s hanging body shortly after his execution.  His face is covered in a mask meant to preserve his dignity in death but which only adds to the horrific nature of the image.  Biggerstaff wears the same coat as in the first picture and is flanked by a Reverend, Victor  Day, as well as the sheriff, Henry Jurgens.  A crowd of onlookers is clearly visible in the back indicating the public nature and spectacle of Biggerstaff’s death.  In the final image, Biggerstaff is shown in his casket.  The angle of the image draws attention to his hand on which a wedding ring is clearly visible.

At first glance this troublesome series of images seems no different than the myriad of lynching images from this time period.  Leigh Raiford describes such images as an essential component of the “reinscribing of the black body as commodity” and a mechanism that “helped extend [a unified white identity] far beyond the town, the county, the state, the South, to include whites nationwide and even internationally.”[2]  While this is certainly true of the vast majority of lynching images several features of this image complicate reading it in such a manner.  The first is the presentation of the three images as opposed to a singular image of a lynched body as was the custom.  Rather the photographer’s decision to use three images, including one showing Biggerstaff while he was still, creates a narrative that individualizes the work.  Typical lynching images present bodies that are often unrecognizable, providing an anonymity that allows for a disassociation from the work that for white audiences at the time played into racist fantasies and for contemporary audiences makes it easier to stomach.  Such dissociation is impossible with this series.  By presenting Bigerstaff’s portrait side-by-side with those of his death, the photographer creates a narrative that contextualizes and brings meaning to Biggerstaff’s life as well as death.  The wedding ring in the final image punctuates this narrative and again forces the viewer to think about the consequences of Biggerstaff’s death on those in his life.

The second characteristic of the photograph that disrupts a conventional reading, is not a feature inherent to the work itself but is in fact the photographer, James Presley (J.P.) Ball.  Ball was born a free man in 1825 in Virginia.  He learned the art of daguerreotype and quickly became extremely successful as a photographer.  As one of the most successful and famous photographers of the latter half of the 20th century, Ball photographed a number of notable people including Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass.[3]  However, in addition to his famous portraits, Ball also documented the horrors of slavery as well as lynchings, publishing a pamphlet addressing the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through the Middle Passage, ” and serving as the official photographer for the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. [4]  In addition, Ball was one of the leaders of the movement for William Biggerstaff’s clemency.[5]

Thus, when viewed in this light, these images necessarily take on a different meaning.  If lynching images were commodify the black body for white consumption, as Raiford argues, then what does it mean that this particular set of images was taken by a photographer such as Ball?  To some degree the images of Biggerstaff highlight the relevance of authorship and purpose when it comes to lynching images.  Had the same set of images been taken by a white photographer for purposes more in keeping with most lynching images, they would remain part of the processes described by Raiford, lacking any notion of emancipation.  At the same time, the mere fact that Ball may have intended the images to serve as a call to arms, or at the very least a powerful memorial to Biggerstaff, does not control how they would have been and continue to be interpreted.  Thus, although the typical mechanisms of lynching images are unquestionably disrupted, Ball’s role and the photograph itself cannot be neatly summarized.  The question then, becomes what the role of the art historian ought to be with regards to this image.  Is it enough to merely draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of images are complicated by concepts of authorship, viewership, subject and object?  Such an exercise seems to fall short.


[1] The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

[2] Leigh Raiford, “The Consumption of Lynching Images,” p. 270.  From Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis.

[3] http://www.lonniedawkins.com/JamesPresleyBall.htm#_edn5; (The San Francisco Call, 1896)

The San Francisco Call. (1896, April 8). Met Death with a Smile. The San Francisco Call, p. 1.

http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[4] http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/state/070226-stover-ball.html

[5] P. 246, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature by Jacqueline Goldsby. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Also: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ball-james-presley-1825-1904, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/photo/death.html

Standing for Attention

 

Vanessa Beecroft, VB 39: U.S. Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, digital chromogenic print, 1999

Vanessa Beecroft’s VB 39 is a photograph made during a performance created at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1999.

Beecroft (b. 1969) is an Italian-born artist working in New York. Her large-scale, voyeuristic performances, which are highly repetitive in their form and content, focus on the importance of the encounters between model, artists, and audience. Scholars have suggested that these performances situate the models as “something between an object and an image.” [1] Beecroft’s work recalls tableaux vivants, the “living pictures” popular among nineteenth century aristocracy. Her performances are created for specific locations; each is informed by and remains entrenched in the social, historical, and political conditions of its setting. She typically uses female models; her earliest works “featured almost identically dressed women in wigs, either standing, sitting or moving in slow formation.” [2] Starting in 1999 with VB 39, Beecroft began to explore androcentric performances. [3]

In VB 39, Beecroft’s first all-male performance, 16 Navy SEALs from Naval Special Warfare Command in San Diego, CA alternately stood at attention or at ease in the Farris Galleries of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. In a photograph taken during the performance, sixteen identically dressed men stand in a choreographed arrangement in a stark white room. The men’s clothes are similarly white. All the men have neatly cropped hair, and most are clean-shaven, although three sport trim moustaches. One participant stands in front of the larger group, which is lined up five across, three rows deep. Each man adopts the same posture: legs spread hip-width, back straight, shoulders back, arms bent at a forty-five degree angle, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

We recognize the men as members of the United States Navy by their distinctive uniforms. As the wife and daughter of former naval officers, I look at this photograph and see information that might be lost on viewers unaffiliated with the Navy. At a distance – visual or critical – the soldiers’ outfits appear identical, but those familiar with military semiotics can decode each man’s rank and educational history through the variations in their attire. The men are not wearing their “covers” (hats); covers are worn exclusively outside, never inside. The SEALs wear “summer whites”, not full dress uniforms. This suggests a measure of informality within Beecroft’s rigidly constructed performance. The uniforms are clearly differentiated by a collection of status markers. White or black shoes indicate whether a soldier is, respectively, an officer or enlisted. Similarly, epaulets signify an officer, while a sleeve insignia marks enlisted. Seal pins, jump wings, and war ribbons further differentiate the men by rank.

The number of soldiers – 16 – is also significant; it represents the number of members in a SEAL platoon. Further, the models chosen embody the actual composition of platoon: although this may not be a specific platoon, the correct number of soldiers are present in the right distribution of ranks; thus, the group could be a functioning SEAL platoon. The group comprises non-commissioned officers, including 1st class petty officers, 2nd class petty officers, and chief petty officers, one line officer, and one limited duty officer.

VB 39 explores individual and collective identities. The soldiers’ uniforms signify the organizational norms established by the Navy and the subsumption of the individual to the institution. The uniform also suggests adherence to traditional norms masculinity, which require conformity from individual men. However, the soldiers’ status markers and physical attributes – age, hair color, skin color, facial hair, musculature, tattoos – are also a set of coded, legible signs. Despite the homogeneity imposed by the Navy uniform and Beecroft’s performance, each man has a personal narrative, an individual history. The standardization of their dress and behavior in formation reinscribe the importance of homogeneity in the collective identity, while the unique visual attributes of each soldier remind the viewer of each man’s suppressed individuality.

Christine Ross suggests that VB 39 is “masculinizing the female role of to-be-looked-at-ness.” [5] As in her earlier works, VB 39 objectifies its participants. Like the lithe fashion models populating most of Beecroft’s performances, Navy SEALs are popular sex symbols. [6] In VB 39, as in all of her works, Beecroft plays on the disjuncture of collective identity (from which sexual appeal is born) and the individual identity (which might actually spoil desire) and the effects of this rupture on the viewer’s attraction to the performers. Thus, despite a shift from female to male performers, Beecroft’s choice of subject falls neatly in line with her prior works.

[1] Francis Summers, “Vanessa Beecroft”, Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, November 16, 2007, http://www.groveart.com/

[2] Summers

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanessa_Beecroft

[4] Summers

[5] Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 213, n14.

[6] Annys Shin, “SEALs go from superhero to sex symbol”, Washington Post, May 8, 2011.

 

Blog Entry: Racial Time, Racial Marks, Racial Metaphors

Photography is a field where the psychic power of fantasy meets the power of the marketplace.  The economic incentive to stimulate viewers who enjoyed visualization of racial difference has affected the ways that numerous photographers in America have represented all the peoples of the country as well as their very choice to do so (41).

From the beginning of the chapter, Fusco marks photography as a space of imagination, where can make it seem as though “we can know who we are and who we were” (13).  She also marks photography as a “public, communal activity” (13).  These two thoughts lead what follows in the rest of the chapter.  Photography becomes a tool of public imagination, and a way to position oneself in society.  One of the most salient ways people are positioned in the United States is through race.  National identity is defined through whiteness both socially and legally, where those bodies marked as not white were granted limited access to rights and social mobility (13-17).  “Rather than recording the existence of race, photography produced race as a visualizable fact” (16).  The legacy of this history is still present, especially when we look at the commodification of ethnicity and race as produced by the entertainment industry (18).  “Because race is an imaginary construct that is also a social fact with political ramifications, the act of making it visible entails generating believable fictions and demonstrating the effect of their credibility” (26).

Part of the construction of race and photography is the imagined distance between groups.  While Fusco does not go in depth into the spatial aspects of Race making in the United States, its presence is still visible throughout the essay.  In the description of the legal and popular consciousness, there is talk of “public acts with measurable effects and a private world of image consumption and fantasy” (18).  She also discusses photography’s ability to render and deliver “interracial encounters that might be dangerous, forbidden, or unattainable as safe and consumable experiences” (20).  Photography places the photographed subject in worlds, and allows the viewer to encounter these worlds.  Though the creation of these worlds is an imagined experience, the act of viewing is an act of both world creating and travelling.  Mass-market photography becomes the “domain for the imagination where fantasies did not have to remain within the bounders of time, space, law, or decorum—but where pleasure was predicated on the awareness of limits and roles” (20). What becomes important is who is creating those worlds and to what ends?

Fusco speaks of the “aestheticizing of natural and of preindustrial societies” created by the visual tropes of photography (21).  I would like to add the idea of anesthetizing nature of seeing the repetition of these tropes over and over again. As the imagined encounter is re-produced and re-encounterd, the thoughts are re-inscribed until they become part of the social reality.  We can see this in action when we think of the proliferation of the heavily airbrushed images is mass-market photographic content.  While we know that most of the photographs are modified beyond recognition, we socially feel more comfortable encountering the imagined ideal than the untouched reality.  Photography allows us to erase some of the space we place between our real and imagined worlds.

In addition to the spatial component of the imagined world of the photograph, another aspect that is central for Fusco, so central that it is in the title of the essay, is time.  Photography created an interesting relationship with time and the other.  “The ethnographic trope of staging evolutionary time” (21), illustrates and interesting disconnect photography creates with regards to time.  If with space, photography allows for a collapsing of worlds, in terms of time, it creates more distance.  The time of the photographed is staged.  When looking at the racial other (in relation to whiteness), time is staged to look as though it is more distant and primitive.  These representations were often exaggerated for the purpose of humor when taken outside of political and scientific propaganda (21).  This is another area I would like to push.  While there is an acknowledgement counter imagery being produced, showing the “Other” dressed as though civilized, what the existence of these two versions does to the temporal aspect of the imagined world of the other is something I find fascinating.  Because the other needed to be staged, today, as in the day of the photograph, as though they are in an imagined then, a there was created.  As such, the temporal aspect of the racialized “Other-as-photograph” exists out of time.  The raced (where race means non-white) body was constructed to be seen at a future time.  This allowed for the racialized body to become a body that could be commodified in specific ways because it became the body to be written, or scripted.  Studios became “laboratories for the fabrication of multiple selves.  Photographed performances of racial transvestisim in which whites could express their repressed ‘inner primitives’ and nonwhites were dressed as wild savages, or demonstrated their abilities to ‘perform whiteness’ were popular” (21-22).   It is this scripting of self and other that we still see in the realms Fusco marks, “music, literature, film television, pornography, tourism, advertising, fashion and beauty products” (22).  The historical legacy of race scripting has not ben erased.

Fusco goes on to frame the exhibit, or rather, put it in context (24-26).  As a project that is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, there seems to be a need to show more than one side.  The topics the book covers are complex, and the exhibit tries to create themes for understanding and engagement.

The second half of the Essay starts to explore the theoretical framework Fusco used in thinking through the project.  The first theoretical stop, “Racial imagery as mythical speech” (26), is clearly a nod to Barthes’ “Myth Today”.  An interesting link is made between Barthes reading of the image of the Black French soldier and Fanon’s concepts of blackness (26).  Fusco states,“when it works effectively…mythical speech makes a particular view of history seem like nature. If we analyze the intent of the myth, we discredit its content as a simple fact of life” (29).  In reading this, I could not help but go back to Fanon, specifically the translation of the title of chapter 5 in Black Skin, White Masks.  The title was originally translated as “the Fact of Blackness” but changed in more recent translations to “the Lived Experience of the Black Man”.  Much like the documentary photographs Fusco analyzes, the title shows something that is first presented as fact, but later revealed to be fabricated, a carefully crafted experience of blackness, or, in the case of the photograph analyzed, American Indians.  As we move further from the time when a photograph was seen as a factual representation, we begin to understand that all photographs carry myths, especially given the role of race in the United States.  In this acknowledgement we open photography to citational play, something Fusco explores in looking at the imagery of Paul Pfeiffer, Todd Haynes and Celia Alvarez Muñoz (29-31).

Fusco offers a succinct genealogy of race in “The evolution of race” (32-35).  This section goes over the linguistic and scientific evolution of the term and concept, as well as the legacies of these realms.  Fusco, through Winant, pushes back on the idea of race being a category that is no longer important (34-35).  She goes goes back to the spatial language of race saying, “it is rooted in a logic that emerges from binary relationships of domination, its meaning is constrained by poles of difference (35).

The last two sections of the essay, “Framing whiteness” (35-41) and “Racial politics and racial fantasies” (41-48), work together to expand on some of the importance of the history and social structures from the first part of the essay.

In framing whiteness a counterpoint to photograph producing the racialized subject is presented.  As much as photography produced the raced body, it also helped solidify the place of whitness and its construction in visual culture (36).  Whiteness exists in the affective resonance of an image, it “does not need to be made visible to be present in an image; it can be expressed as the spirit of enterprise, as the power to organize the material world, and as an expansive relation to the environment” (37).  Normative time and space are the realms of whiteness, something the work of John Baldessari, featured in this section, tries to capture.  The other performance of whiteness that is often visualized in photographs, is patriotism.  This goes back to the creation of myth. We erase bodies of color from the photographic record of patriotic types, such as cowboys, so that the imagined visual reference point is a whitewashed version of the actual (37-38).  Additionally, things such as racial profiling exist to re-racialize populations at times when national security is under threat (38).

The most important part of the last chapter seems to be the relation of power in terms of the racialized image.  Early ethnographic imagery was seen as a means of accessing power vicariously (42). This early relationship to power is something that means that, even though we legally have dismantled racism, it still exists in our visual matrix in much the same way. Fusco calls for a deconstructing of photography and the racial photographic index (43).  She states that we need to critically reflect on what we are given when looking at all forms of photography (45).  We need to do this because even when we look at racial photographs that we see as beautiful today, they are still communicating something to us about race in the present (44).  This, again, relates to the ability of raced photos to collapse time, and inevitable feel inherently political (48).

Visual Shorthand: The Female Nude

“Luxe, Calme et Volupté” 1904-1905 is a fauvist work by Henri Matisse. During the period in which it was painted, Matisse belonged to a group of young artists whose bold and unconventional works alarmed critics to the extent that they referred to them as“wild beasts” (les fauves).  Matisse’s work, in particular, embodied this new spirit utilizing color and brush strokes to convey feelings and sensations in a fashion that broke dramatically with the canon.

To See This Image Please Visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Matisse-Luxe.jpg
Henri Matisse “Luxe, Calme et Volupté”, 1904

The work is a leisure scene that shows six nude women each from a different vantage point as they bathe and picnic on a beach in St. Tropez.  Moving from left to right the viewer sees one woman from the back and another reclining with her nudity on full display.  Behind her a smaller figure is seen wrapped in a blanket. At the foot of the reclining nude another woman is crouched combing through her hair.  The penultimate figure is in a semi-reclined pose with her back to the viewer while the last is slightly turned such that her body is fully visible but her face is shown in profile.  Matisse has placed these women in an idyllic even pastoral setting showing them on the shores of a lake.  The only clues that this is a modern scene are the boat in the background and the picnic utensils placed in the left corner of the work.

In many ways this work is highly traditional.  The subject matter of nude female bodies as created by a male artist and in particular bathers in a pastoral landscape “can be traced back to the work of Poussin” an artist that epitomized the values of Academic painters.[1] Further, the title of the work comes from the chorus of a poem entitled L’invitation au voyage “which describes an escape to an Arcadian land of sensuality and calm.”[2] Such references to poetry are in keeping with nineteenth-century Academic traditions.

The poem referenced, however is by symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire and indicative of Matisse’s modernist tendencies. Similarly, Matisse’s technique can only be described as modern.  Matisse’s use of lozenge-like shapes reveals the artist’s every brushstroke.  The bodies are portrayed crudely, some are little more than the outline of a shape.  In addition, the use of the word “luxe” in this context conveys more than just “luxury” rather it suggests “voluptuousness, self-indulgence and sensuality” a well as a connection to the contemporary cult of “joie de vivre.”[3]

Gill Perry suggests that it is precisely the tensions in the work between technique and subject matter that serves to disrupt the notion that these women are merely objects of the “male gaze.” Rather the Matisse has portrayed the women in an unreal manner manipulating and distorting their figures such that their physical oddness “undermines any easy perception of these women merely as objects of male sexual desire.”[4] The question Perry poses in connection to this work is whether artistic processes can mediate social and sexual politics.  For me, however, this work raises another interesting question: how is gender being used as visual shorthand?

I fully agree with Perry that Matisse is able to use technique to disrupt reading this work as purely one of sexual objectification or male eroticism. However, this reading cannot be disrupted without existing as an initial assumption provided by the presence of female nudes.  The female nude provides a ready-made discourse that tends to imply the same categories of interrogation.  Thus this “female shorthand” freezes the notion of the female body in a specific set of meanings and discourse continuing to convey the same readings and associations in a manner that inhibits new interpretations.

For example, in discussing this work Perry speaks first of the male gaze and then of the sexual nature of the poses.[5]  Although Perry is by no means characterizing the work solely in terms of these elements or even suggesting that they are the primary themes of the works, the need to address such elements time and again seemingly conflicts with her notion that abstraction disrupts such discourse.

To me, the abstraction in this context suggests the assertion of the male artist as he can now control the body of the female.  Thus, the use of the female body as a form of visual short hand permits the artist to present the same ideologies and associations and emphasize the modernity of the technique rather than the subject matter.  In other words, the use of the female nude acts as Matisse’s acknowledgement of his familiarity with the traditional art historical canon while his technique demonstrates his innovations as an artist.  In this manner, this work becomes more about the emancipation of the male artist than it does of the female figures suggesting that abstraction does not truly disrupt traditional discourse.

 


[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 202.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Primitivism and the Modern” by Gill Perry from: Primitivism, Cubism and Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. The Open University, 1993, p 54.

[4] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

[5] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxe,_Calme_et_Volupt%C3%A9:

An Indeterminate Gaze

 

Emilie Charmy, La Loge, 1902, oil on board

Everything about Emilie Charmy’s La Loge  is indeterminate.

Charmy’s loose brushwork suggests rather than depicts. The composition is representational, but abstract. Objects and figures are not easily distinguished in the haze. In the foreground, a powdery blue carpet with a pastel pattern draws the viewer’s eye into the frame. The walls are salmon pink, and are lined with barely recognizable domestic objects, including a cabinet, a vase, paintings, and a blue folding screen. On the right, a nude female is seated in a chair, arms outstretched over a table laid with a green cloth, her attention directed towards a vase of flowers. To the left of this figure, a cluster of women circle an obscure black shape. One sits on the floor, another stands, and a third pitches forward over her crossed legs. Light reflects off of the standing figure’s back, drawing the viewer’s eye and anchoring the composition. She is further distinguished from the others by the green ribbon tied around her stocking. In the background, another group of undressed women are gathered around a table.

If we look closely, we realize that the women’s bodies are composed of a riot of natural and unnatural colors: peach, umber, lavender, white, aqua and acid green. The figures wear black stockings and little else; some are fully nude. The painting suggests a familiarity with the techniques of Post-Impressionism, including abstractions of real-life subjects, thick application of paint, visible brushstrokes, and unnatural coloration. We can also discern similarities between Charmy and the Fauves, but her coloration is not as brutal; her hues seem muted by comparison. Charmy’s loose brushwork renders the image hazy and difficult to parse, merely suggesting the shapes of people and objects. Nothing is explicit. Everything is open to interpretation. La Loge is suggestive. Flesh is suggested by the texture of the paint. Intimacy is suggested by the tight groupings of figures. Secrecy is suggested by room’s lack of visible doors and windows. These suggestions inspire more questions than they answer, leaving us to wonder: in what kind of environment do women sit around wearing nothing but black stockings? And what kind of lady painter frequents such an environment?

Emilie Charmy was born in 1878. She is known as a female Fauve painter, and was friends with Matisse and other Fauves, but the exact nature of her relationships with these painters remains unclear. She enjoyed an unusually high level of commercial success for a woman painter in her period, and saw her popularity peak in the 1920s. La Loge was painted before Charmy’s period of commercial success, when she was approximately 24 years old. Gill Perry suggests that the title is best translated as “artist’s dressing room”. [1] However, comparisons with contemporary paintings suggest that Charmy has painted a brothel scene: her figures wear the trademark black stockings that feature prominently in the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Perry asserts that a “respectable middle class” woman like Charmy would not have visited a brothel, suggesting that La Loge was not drawn from life. Perry claims that the representation of a space to which a woman would not have had access necessarily implies a male spectator, and that Charmy’s appropriates and reinterprets the male gaze. [2]

Alternatively, La Loge may not be an appropriation of the male gaze. Instead, we might read it as a thoroughly feminine expression of desire. Elsewhere, Perry has suggested that Charmy was bisexual. Many of Charmy’s portraits of women and female nudes are sensually charged. There is a furtive quality to the image, which implies an illicit experience, a project accomplished in secret or haste. Loge also means “theater box.” During the nineteenth century, a loge was a charged space where theatre spectators went to see and be seen. The performances taking place offstage were as important as the drama on the night’s bill. Theatre boxes were acceptable public space for women to be display themselves and be observed by others. The loge promoted a voyeuristic experience for both the inhabitant of the box and the audience below, wherein those in the box viewed and were viewed simultaneously. The architecture of the box promoted this interaction, framing the box’s inhabitants for display. Similarly, Charmy’s treatment of the brothel room suggests a performance by the women, for an unseen audience, in a space that frames them for viewing. Charmy’s title, which links the painting to a space where women and men could gaze freely, suggests that the gaze in play may belong to woman or a man.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 207.
[2] Perry, 209.

The Academicians, the Decapatated Women, and the Chinese Guy

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany

Painted by Johann Zoffany,  a German born painter who studied in England before moving to England where he became known for painting small group scenes [1], The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, based on Raphael’s School of Athens,  portrays “a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Academicians, shot through with humour and affection: a tribute to the brotherhood shared by artists involved in this fledgling institution. Rather than showcasing an artistic community at work – educating or being educated – it explores the individual character of the various protagonists, as they talk, listen, contemplate, or simply strike poses” [2].   This painting is in contrast to other paintings that focused on the academicians at work, in a space of learning.  Despite the models being in the room, the portrait is attempting to show the academicians as they were.  Based on the class conversation we had, if that was a stated goal of the painting, I assume that the people were placed together in specific ways.  However, being so far removed from the context makes it impossible to know what relationships are being highlighted.

 One of the things I found interesting about this painting, as was noted in the book, and source [2], is that the two women members of the Academy, even when being portrayed in a scene that is outside of the confines of education, are allowed to exist only in a “virtual” form.  Mary Mauser and Angelica Kauffman are portrait paintings on the wall, in profile and three-quarters view.  The decision to include nude male models makes the scene to indecent for the women to be present [2], but I can’t help but wonder if their inclusion would have ignited debates over the souls and work lives of women artists.  While I understand the discomfort with their presence relative to their time and place in history, what I find peculiar is how the other virtually present women’s bodies are placed, in addition to Mauser and Kauffman losing their bodies.

The walls in the room are covered in bits and pieces of women’s bodies.  There are also some additional women’s heads without bodies.  I am not positive but I think the full body sculptures are all men, meaning all the women in the painting are portrayed as though decapitated.  There is one image of the female form that I find particularly disturbing, despite the headless state of all of them.  Given that the reason the two women who were part of the academy cannot be portrayed is that there are nude models present, I am not sure what having a model in the process of disrobing next to a mutilated female form laying on the ground underneath him while one of the academy members stabs her just above her pelvis with a walking stick is saying.  I find this mini-scene within a scene particularly jarring because it is one of the two areas of the painting where the gaze of a person, the male model, is pointed outward, towards the viewer.  The only other person who looks out of the painting is the virtual presence of Angelica Kauffman.  Given that it is his presence along with his colleague behind him that are literally cutting the women out of the painting, and Angelica is one of these cut out women, I cannot help but wonder if this configuration of bodies and body parts is intentional (though I cannot figure out why the body is being stabbed).

The second part of the image that caught me off-guard was the inclusion of  Chitqua (Tan Chet Qua) (active 1769-died 1796), Chinese artist. Sitter in 3 portraits [3].  The reason I find his inclusion so striking is because when I imagine what a Royal Academy gathering would look like, more than the absence of woman, the inclusion of people who are not of European ancestry was not what I was expecting.  After doing a bit of web research I’ve learned that my initial thoughts might be correct.

The only gate-crasher to this party is the Chinese artist, Tan-che-qua (fifth from the left), who happened to be in London at the time. Apart from curiosity value, his inclusion here may be a reminder of the writer of the Royal Academy’s Professor of Poetry, Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-74), who published a series of letters, with the title The Citizen of the World, supposedly written by a Chinaman visiting England [4].

While this quotes allows for the Chinese artist to be a “Gate Crasher”, it also places Chinese thought and art in dialogue with European art and thought in a way I was not aware of at this period in time.  I think this is important, especially given the context of this course because, while we’ve discussed gender at length, I think this might be our first racial encounter, outside of the White Boyz, we’ve had.  His inclusion, along with the international makeup of the sitters, (10 of 34 were not British [5]), forces me to re-frame how I imagine the Royal Academy.

Sources:
1. http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=3584
2. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/ra-magazine/spring-2012/johan-zoffany-finding-the-founders,342,RAMA.html
3. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00357/Key-to-The-Academicians-of-the-Royal-Academy?LinkID=mp04991&role=sit&rNo=2#sitter
4. http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?object=400747&row=0&detail=about
5. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=419266&sectioncode=26